Settling on a Game Type

As it just so happens, it's now exactly two months since I first got the idea in my head to learn making a videogame. And over four weeks since I wrote anything about that here. The main reason for this is that we're currently smack in the middle of peak season at work at my day job. It's basically crunch time for growing plants right now. The time that I do have after work and on Sundays I mostly spend on doing research (which is playing a bunch of 20 year old games and watching Game Makers Toolkit and GDC presentations on youtube). The other reason is that I have been really undecided about what specific kind of RPG I want to make, which of course determines what options for gameplay mechanics are even possible, how the world would be structured and communicated, and what kinds of assets I will have to learn to produce for it.

The two main options that were in consideration since the second week were the Baldur's Gate-Kenshi top-down party type, and the Morrowind-Thief first person type. Two general types of RPGs I have a lot of affection for and experience with, which both have plenty of appeal and I believe can be made by a single developer with no experience given a sufficient amount of time. But I think for a good three weeks, I was flipping back and forth between having made my final decision and being ready to go forward every other day. The Morrowind-Thief type game was always the one for which I had a the much more clear image in my mind for how it would look and play, and what design sensibilities I want to put into practice with it. But making a top-down game with a party of characters like in Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment always kept calling out to me again the entire time, as it is a style I feel a much deeper connection to. Even though the mental image of what that game would actually look like was really vague and hazy in comparison.

Earlier this week, I think I figured out where these pulls into two different directions came from. The original idea to try my hand on making an RPG was back in February when an old version of RPG Maker was free on Steam. And RPG Maker is an engine that is strictly top-down 2D sprites. And with that in mind, I started to think of what other games I knew that I could lift ideas and inspirations from for making my own game set in Kaendor. It became clear on Day 1 that RPG Maker wasn't going to be the engine for me, and within a week or so of thinking about the process of creating the sprites for a game that looks like Baldur's Gate or Fallout I also realized that 2D wasn't really on the table for me either. But despite of that, that original list of 90s sprite RPGs has been staying with me throughout the entire concept phase. And I think that was the little bug into my ear that kept nagging me about considering that top-down party RPG again. But the truth is that I really have no clue what I would want to do with a game like that. I am not interested in creating a big dialog-heavy story. I'm not really interested in tactical party combat. And I wouldn't really have the ability to put sweeping landscape views into the game that player's can take in and let settle for a minute or two.

For nearly the last two months, I've been thinking that I do have two distinctively different games in me and eventually have to decide which one I want to pursue for now. But after some weeks of long and hard thinking, I'm feeling that this isn't the case. I have two types of games that I have affection for. But I do have only one game in me that I know how to bring into being. So the Morrowind-Thief game it's going to be. The Stealth Archer Metroidvania.

There are of course some hesitations I have about this type of game as well. One feeling that often comes up is of 3D open world environments feeling gloomy and emotionally drained. But I think that's mostly because the main impressions of open worlds in my mind are Gothic, Morrowind, Stalker, Skyrim, and Metro Exodus. But that's actually very much a consequence of these games' worldbuilding. Stalker and Metro are explicitly designed as post-apocalyptic wastelands in a cold-temperate climate. Skyrim is a sub-arctic setting during fall, so lots of days with grey skies, constant drizzle, and regular fog are what you should expect. Morrowind is primarily swamps and volcanic wastelands. (Though the Ascadian Isles region is gorgeous.) And Gothic just has a really ugly color palette of grey-green, grey-brown, and grey-grey. (Which they did change in the second game.) There is no reason for me to present Kaendor as a dusty brown world under a mostly grey sky. Nothing is stopping me from texturing and lighting it like Conan Exiles or Horizon, for example. This is not actually an issue that comes with 3D open world environments.

Another thing that doesn't feel good when I am thinking of first person RPGs is that I often have almost no sense of the character I am playing being a person with any distinctive traits. There are often plenty of NPCs who are memorable and iconic, but even as the main character of the story, my characters never feel like they are an equal among them. But again, this probably comes from the games that are my prime references. This is a consequence of how System Shock 2, Morrowind, Skyrim, and Stalker treat the player character within the writing of the game. In contrast, I have a much stronger sense of character in Baldur's Gate. Which I think is entirely because of the way the dialog options you can pick from are written in that series. It has nothing to do with your character being presented as a 32 pixel high sprite instead of the game being in first person. I think by using a more Baldur's Gate style approach to dialogs, it should be possible to create a stronger sensation that the player is interacting with NPCs rather than listening to them monologing.

And of course, there is the big elephant in the room that a lot of people are very vocally sharing their distaste of open-world games. But when you listen to them voicing their grievances, it's clear that their issues are not with open-world environments. They all just really hate UbiSoft games. Which includes non-UbiSoft games like Horizon, Fallout 4, Rockstar games, and to a limited extend even Skyrim and The Witcher 3. And I actually fully agree on all the common complaints made against these games. The Witcher 3 always felt like a game that would probably have been much better if it wasn't an open-world game. And I am even of the opinion that Horizon is actually a bad game overall. And it all comes down to these games wanting to be cinematic interactive story experiences at the same time as wanting to be open-world games. Which are two fundamentally opposed gameplay types with incompatible gameplay needs. I believe that an open-world game should put the open-world at the center of the entire game concept and then build everything around that. Don't slap a linear cinematic story on top of an open world. It always sucks. To me, open worlds as a game environment shine when they are used as the stage for dynamic interactive systems and procedural mechanics. In short, emergent gameplay and stories rather than scripted setpieces.

But what I really mean with that I plan on laying out at greater detail in a future post.